Last night, at bedtime, I read this passage from Father Alexander Schmemann’s classic book, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha:
Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart fo sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust — the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.
That was convicting. Last week was the first week of Lent for Orthodox Christians. For me, especially coming off of ten days in France, it was a rough go. The fast reminded me of how much I am controlled by my appetite, and how much I have to repent of. This, of course, is the point of Lent. The late Coptic monk Father Matta El-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor), in his book Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, writes:
The experience of prayer is not all delight, nor power, nor tangible gain. To reach maturity under God’s hand, man has to undergo countless stages of purifying and discipline. God puts to death to bring back to life; he breaks to bind up, wounds to heal, smites to embrace, and banishes to restore to his bosom. To all God’s elect, there is no escaping his rod. To all those who love him, there is no alternative to the bitterness of abandonment and the gall of alienation. God’s children must suffer from his fatherly anger and rebuke.
(Side note: to read Orthodox spiritual counsel in the Moralistic Therapeutic Deist world is like eating real food in the midst of McDonalds.)
I woke up early this morning thinking about Father Schmemann’s words, and the Coptic abbot’s — and also thinking about my time last week with the French Catholic farmers. (Believe it or not, my mind is clearest between the time I wake up and the time I put my feet on the floor; my prayer is purest then.) I thought about how Lent is a time of learning (re-learning) the extent to which I have taken the gift of my life for granted. My mind drifted to these words of Wendell Berry’s, which I quoted in my talk to the farmers:
What we have undertaken to defend is the complex accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense, and fundamental decency — the high and indispensable art — for which we probably can find no better name than “good farming.” I mean farming as defined by agrarianism as opposed to farming as defined by industrialism: farming as the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift.
I am not a farmer. I am not even a gardener. But like all of you, I am called to cultivate the garden that is my life. Here is a passage from Genesis 2:
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
… The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Let us consider this garden a metaphor for our lives. God has given us our lives, and the charge to cultivate it. And he set a limit on our activity in the garden. If we fail to obey him, we will turn from life to death.
The farmer knows that there is an inner logic embedded in nature. Some things he cannot do, not if he wants his fields to produce good crops. He has to be diligent in his cultivation. He cannot simply use up the gift of the good earth, but rather must treat it as a good steward. This requires discipline. One of the speakers at the farmer’s conference (the Journées Paysannes), Benoît Huyghe, comes from an intentional Christian agrarian community. He said in his talk:
Most of us have discovered farming life in the community; agriculture is the first of the trades. However, we are not specialists. We have summarily learned gestures, a rhythm with our elders. Our great educator is the nature that one only learns through time and experience. In our eyes the key word of a peasant worthy of the name, like the monk, is stability, or otherwise says a rooting that alone can produce fruit in its time. We must learn to know his land, his climate, his animals. Any agricultural book to be bought needs to sell itself as revolutionary and miraculous. But the characteristic of the miracle (even the truth, the one that is not a mirage for the credulous) is not to be a reproducible phenomenon.
Before learning from his agronomic practices, it takes 25 years of hindsight. See over time if yields are maintained, if weed management remains possible. And stay humble: what works in one place may not work elsewhere.
This is what tradition means. This is why we fast during Lent: to learn to know (metaphorically) the land, the climate, and the animals into which we have been thrown, and commanded to care for and cultivate. You can buy books to tell you how to do it — Father Schmemann’s and Abbot Matthew’s are both very good — but there is no substitute for the doing.
As I lay in bed praying this morning, I asked God to help me to be a better gardener. As Wendell Berry has said, “It all turns on affection.” I asked Him to help me to love Him more, first of all, and to cherish the gifts He has given me, and asked me to cultivate. Instead of seeing my day as full of obstacles in my way, problems to be solved, I should see it as entering into a garden, or my fields — a gift given for me to love and to cultivate.
There can be no real cultivation without affection, without love. Lent is a time of re-ordering our loves, of recovering chastity in the broad sense. Instead of getting out of bed, I rolled over and hugged my sleeping wife for a while, and prayed the whole time.
Orthodox Lent is a hard time, but a beautiful time, a time of real spiritual growth, as the roots push down through hard soil, toward the deep. There is never a time of the year in which I am more grateful for the gift of my Orthodox faith as these days. And, as funny as it might sound, this morning was a gift of the Journées Paysannes, and their testimony. Though I have no fields, it is a blessing to farm alongside them.